When the decisive moment in the title race finally came, everyone knew it.
Patrice Evra certainly did.
Sprinting across the turf at the JJB Stadium to join his celebrating teammates, the Frenchman exuberantly crossed his arms in an obvious imitation of Rafa Benitez’s controversial gesture made a month earlier, when Liverpool beat Blackburn.
Back then at Anfield, the Spanish manager was reported to be indicating in the action that the game was over, Liverpool had won. This time Evra was indicating something more final—that the title race was over.
Manchester United had won.
Four days later, in a game that for the majority resembled the formality it ultimately was, Manchester United got the point they needed at home to Arsenal to clinch their 11th Premier League title.
That Saturday afternoon, on the Old Trafford pitch in front of their adoring fans, was where the title victory was formally celebrated. However, for all intents and purposes, it was in the 86th minute of a turgid game in Wigan that the trophy’s destination was sealed, with a 20-yard drive from Michael Carrick that whistled past ‘keeper Richard Kingston.
Arguably, the scorer of that goal could not have been more fitting.
After that match, Carlos Tevez’s impact from the bench drew the headlines. Often this season the Argentine striker has grabbed the limelight. If not him, then Ronaldo, Rooney, Berbatov, Vidic, Giggs, or any number of United’s superstars.
Rarely has it been Carrick.
This is perhaps understandable. The 27-year-old plays the role of conductor in the United side, spreading the ball for others to utilise. He rarely draws attention to his own moments of class, as his comments after the Wigan win (where he scored one and set up the other) indicate:
"To score a goal as important as that is a great feeling,” he admitted. "Carlos coming on and scoring like that got us back in the game, and from then on we just wanted to nick the winner and we've done that."
Yet for all his self-deprecation and willingness to credit the collective over the individual, Carrick’s worth to United cannot be underestimated. Alongside Evra, Nemanja Vidic, Rio Ferdinand, and Wayne Rooney, there is arguably no more indispensable member of the United team than the former Tottenham and West Ham midfielder.
His manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, would undoubtedly agree.
Prevailing footballing wisdom—with good reason—opines that all successful sides must play with at least one holding midfielder, one player capable of breaking up opposition attacks and starting offensive moves of their own.
Barca have Yaya Toure, AC Milan have Gennaro Gattuso, Liverpool boast Javier Mascherano, and Chelsea employ Michael Essien. All the best teams have one such player. Arsenal’s problem this year, if you believe the experts, is their lack of such a player.
Yet Manchester United have been indisputably the best side in the world over the last few years—and this season they have employed no such player.
The only player that naturally plays the midfield role in the squad, Owen Hargreaves, has missed the whole of this season through injury.
In Hargreaves’ absence, Carrick has stepped up to the plate.
Helped out by the steely determination of his backline, Carrick serves as the screen against opposition sides. As he is not a tough tackler in the vain of Mascherano or Essien, Carrick plays a slightly different game. His strength is in the outstanding range of passing he has at his disposal once he gets the ball, and so this is what he focuses on.
Long or short, left foot or right, he is capable of reading the game and then distributing the ball in a way best designed to cause opponents problems.
Others might score the goals, but Carrick invariably has a hand in the build-up.
He is key to United’s ambitions.
If anything can be made of Ferguson giving Ronaldo the No. 7 shirt formerly worn by Beckham, Cantona, Robson et al., then an equal amount can be read into the Scot’s decision to give Carrick the No. 16 shirt, a shirt most recently owned by a certain Roy Keane.
Carrick plays a different game to the inimitable Irishman, but arguably it is no less integral to the team.
Despite his vital importance to England’s premier side, however, Carrick’s success has not translated into international recognition. Since making his debut against the US in May 2005, he has only amassed a comparatively meagre 17 international caps.
Steven Gerrard, just a year Carrick’s senior, has 72.
Carrick is unfortunate to play in an age where England is blessed with a core of world-class central midfielders. His opportunities have been limited by the sheer eye-catching brilliance of Gerrard and Frank Lampard, and consequently he has often been overlooked for games at the very highest level.
Even in recent years, as Fabio Capello has arrived and underlined the importance of an anchor in midfield, it has been Aston Villa’s Gareth Barry—a player of similar, but arguably not superior, talents to Carrick—who has been the preferred selection.
On many occasions, Carrick has been lucky even to make the squad. While England’s presence in South Africa next summer for the World Cup is all but secure, Carrick’s is certainly not.
But if the Italian ever listens to Sir Alex—which he would be wise to do—then there is no doubt he has been made fully aware of the range of qualities Carrick brings to a football team.
Invariably teams are better with Carrick than without. When he left Tottenham for Old Trafford in the summer of 2006, the White Hart Lane side slumped to disappointing season. Before that, while playing for West Ham, he had to watch from the sidelines for much of an injury-plagued campaign as the Hammers suffered a shock relegation.
Next Wednesday, United face Barcelona in Rome in the Champions League final. Ferguson has already talked of the threat the Catalan giant’s midfield trio (Iniesta, Toure, Xavi) poses.
“The way Barcelona operate their midfield makes it very difficult to get the ball off them,” the Scot said. “They get you on that carousel and they can leave you dizzy. Your concentration levels cannot be allowed to falter for one second.”
In the absence of the suspended Darren Fletcher, Carrick will have to shoulder the majority of the responsibility for limiting Barcelona’s creativity.
Knowing his character, he will attempt to do so without fuss or attention. But if he succeeds in the task, it will undoubtedly go a long way in deciding the destiny of Europe’s most prestigious trophy.
Only great players can do that.